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No Way In

Nobody knew what to do. The wide streets were filled with chaos. Cars on the pavements. Fire engines roaring past. Ambulances whining endlessly like babies crying. Babies were crying. And people were crying too, screaming and sobbing into phones. I walked against the torrent running down the underpass steps and emerged into dust-filled air.

It had been coming but nobody had felt it. Nobody can ever feel it. We’re too busy living. Working, fighting, loving, hating; too caught up in jobs and gossip and what to eat for dinner.

Smoke billowed in the distance. Car alarms rung out, shrill and pointless. My city. My home. Buildings crumbling into heaps of rubble. It had never occurred to me that sleek, tall skyscrapers could be reduced to dust. But we’re all dust. Everything is. We come from dust and revert to dust. All we leave behind is the work we’ve done.

My city. ITALY’S ICES. The ice-cream store. Windows blown in, tables and chairs scattered, awning ripped and fluttering in the smoke. Hundreds and thousands scattered over the floor. Nathan Cole and I had been there on our first date. Sixteen years old. Too teenage to look one another in the eye. Elbows bumped together as we stood in line, staring up at the price list before eventually going for regular cones. With sprinkles, of course.

We ate ice-cream together every Friday for six months. We were in the same Maths class. He sat two rows behind me, a couple of desks to the left. Equations chalked onto the blackboard. I’d feel him watching me and when I turned to catch him, he never looked away. He just smiled. Open. Honest. Almost vulnerable. By the end of the year, the blackboard had become a whiteboard, half the class had disappeared but Nathan was still there.

*

I thought of him as I picked my way along the street. Dug my phone out of my bag and hazily skipped past the endless messages to call him. Voicemail. The smoke hurt my eyes as I tried again. Voicemail. Voicemail. Voicemail. Hey, you’ve reached Nathan Cole. Kindly leave a message and I will endeavour to get back to you. The message used to make me smile. Now, it sounded fake. Too upbeat.

*

The riverside library had been hit. One side had crumpled like the sail of a ship. Books had been thrown out of the gaping hole. The river ran black with ink. Stories washed away. Lost knowledge. Stray pages lay crumpled and smudged, trodden on and ripped. I bent to pick one up. Half a poem.

It didn’t make any sense. Nothing made any sense.

*

Nathan and I had fucked in the library. He knew I always hid there and showed up one late summer’s afternoon, under false pretences. I’d been sitting at a table by the computers, peacefully lost in a fictional Steinbeck world when his voice pulled me back to reality.

“Lainey?” He stood opposite me, acting surprised. “What are you doing here?”

I played his game because he really was too lovely to knock down.

“Just reading.” I showed him the cover of East of Eden. “You?”

“Oh, I came to find books on the Russian revolution. History, y’know?”

I did know. I knew he’d dropped history after the AS level. I knew he’d stuck with the three sciences and Maths to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. I knew he always looked at the ceiling when he lied and ended the lie looking at the floor. But he didn’t know that I knew. The legs of my chair scraped back on the hardwood floor as I stood up. A librarian gave me a look.

“The Russian history books are all over there.” I headed in the appropriate direction. “I’ll show you.”

He followed me. Very closely. If I’d stopped, he’d have bumped into me. I could smell the Polo mint on his breath, could feel the warm tickle against my neck as he exhaled. We’d been broken up for three months. Something about how I was too stuck-up to play PlayStation with him. I couldn’t decide which was more stupid – me or the PlayStation because surely, a half-hour game of FIFA was a small price to pay for being his girlfriend.

Since our break-up, I’d tortured myself by silently watching from across the college lunch hall as he talked to other girls. Prettier girls. Taller girls. Girls with edgy hairstyles and numerous ear piercings. I’d been in love with him since our first date and I deeply regretted not playing that FIFA game. He’d even offered to let me be FC Bayern to his Borussia Dortmund. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. And now he’d come back. Trailing me across the varnished parquet of the library floor towards a case of books which neither of us had any intention of reading.

“Here,” I said. I pressed my finger to the spine of Peace, Bread and Land: How Lenin Masterminded the Russian Revolution and slid it all the way across the titles to Ice Pick Death: Leon Trotsky’s Untimely Fall.

“Those should help.”

I looked up at him. He wasn’t any taller than I remembered but he filled out his height more; the Arctic Monkeys t-shirt didn’t hang off him like it used to. It looked like he’d started to shave too.

“Thanks, Lainey,” he said and I was struck by how pretty my name sounded from his mouth. “But I gotta confess something.”

I blinked. “What?”

“I dropped History. I came here to talk to you.”

I frowned. “You could have just called.”

He smiled. “It’s hardly the same.”

He took a step closer to me. I had to tilt my head further back to keep his face in sight.

“I’ve missed you,” he murmured. “A hell of a lot.”

“Me too.”

His eyebrow lifted.

“You’ve missed yourself?”

“No – you know what I -”

His mouth caught mine before I could finish the sentence. I felt his hands on my shoulders, pushing me back against the bookcase. Nobody was around. Nobody was ever around on a summer afternoon. The fans on the ceiling whirred softly as we made out, my back against Russian history books and my body aching to stretch up to his.

He pulled back and looked at me a little apprehensively.

“You went out with Jack Williams,” he said. His voice was more wary than accusing.

“He was awful,” I said earnestly. “He took me to a slasher movie. I didn’t even kiss him. Didn’t even hug him. I did hold his hand. For maybe two minutes.”

“Well, that’s just unacceptable,” Nathan breathed.

“I’m sorry.”

He kissed me again and he was smiling as he did it and I could feel his smile against mine and we laughed softly, teeth and lips involved in a series of harmless collisions.

“I should let you get back to your book,” he breathed.

“I’ve read it before,” I protested. “Like, four times. Besides, it’s East of Eden. This? This is dead centre Eden.”

Nathan pressed his forehead to mine and I looked at him. His eyes were shut.

“We don’t have to play FIFA,” he whispered. “I can deal with it.”

“Thank the Lord.”

“D’you remember the first time?” His mouth was by my ear. “After year twelve? We went to the park?”

“I thought I’d got it wrong,” I confessed. “Thought you’d tell all your friends I was easy. I lay awake all night imaging Marcus and Adrian laughing about you fucking me under that oak tree. I was terrified the entire school would know.”

“I would never do that.” He sounded stung.

“I know. I just didn’t know back then.”

“There were a lot of things we didn’t know,” he said softly.

“Like how good we had it?” I suggested

“Like how good we can still have it.”

His mouth crushed mine, fingers clawing my dress up until I felt the shelves of the bookcase, hard and cool against the backs of my legs.

“You smell so pretty,” he growled. “Like, you always smell so warm.”

His hands were all over me, on my arms, my legs, pressing against my ribs and groping my tits like touching me gave him some kind of sustenance. He bumped me up higher against the bookcase and I was half-perched on the edge of a shelf as his hand went between my legs and touched without invitation.

“Nate,” I tried to pull my mouth from his. “Someone could see.”

He laughed into my mouth.

“Baby, the only person weird enough to be inside on a day like this is you.”

He bit my lip and tugged on it, took my hand and guided it to the back pocket of his jeans. I felt around until my fingers found a small foil condom packet.

“You’re so fucking arrogant,” I said, but I couldn’t be angry.

The fan whirred. Computers whirred. Librarians typed. Pages turned. Distant footsteps echoed occasionally. Nathan fumbled with his jeans, tugging down the zip and letting out his hardening cock. I watched, my mouth dry. He’d been my first, I’d been his first. I didn’t think I could ever want anyone else. He slid the condom on and smirked at how stupid it looked. I laughed.

“Shh,” he breathed.

My bird-patterned summer dress was up around my waist, my ass on the very edge of one of the shelves. I was half afraid I might break the bookcase. Nathan had no such worries. His arm went around my waist, his free hand moving to tug my underwear aside. The first push made me catch my breath. He sank inside me, hard and purposefully, his hand pressing on the small of my back to encourage me closer. He stayed there a minute, breathing hard.

“It’s okay,” I said. The first time we’d fucked was at the forefront of my mind; he’d jerked after five seconds, leaving me vaguely disappointed.

“What?” he frowned.

“It’s okay, if you can’t – hold on.”

He narrowed his eyes.

“God. Do you have to bring that up every time?” he groaned. “That was years ago. I can last longer. I’ve practiced.”

I bit my lip.

“Oh yeah? With who?”

He didn’t look at me.

“With myself, if you must know. In the shower.”

I giggled, pressing my hand over my mouth and he frowned at me.

“I only did it for you. Is this the thanks I get?”

His hands moved to my waist and he pulled his cock out, before pushing in hard.

He did last longer. And he went harder too, like he wanted to prove his endurance. A hot summer afternoon. Everything felt clammy and sweaty. He pushed in as far as he could go and ground there every so often, making me feel the way his throbbing cock stretched me. My arms were around him, hands holding onto his shoulders, feeling the contours of his body, his shoulder blades beneath the damp t-shirt.

The bookcase thumped with a mild anger at each thrust. Nathan wasn’t deterred. His hands gripped tight to my waist, his face screwed up in concentration as he built a rhythm. I leaned forward to kiss him again and his cock went deeper into me as his tongue pushed into my mouth. One of his hands dropped between us to find my snatch and his fingertip circled my clit.

My toes curled. I put my hand over my mouth, my body aching and stretching as though to get away from the violent rush of pleasure. There was nowhere to go. I came long and hard, clenching tight around his cock. He couldn’t take it. He pumped a couple more times and shoved me hard against the bookcase. I heard books thump out onto the floor on the other side as he jerked inside me, over and over.

We looked at each other breathlessly.

“I don’t think we should ever break up again,” he said.

*

Everything had become pieces, a jumbled mess of scattered fragments, impossible to put back together. Like a jigsaw but with pieces missing and pieces broken and pieces that would never fit back together because the edges were screwed up and no matter how hard you tried, it’d never make the picture. The picture was gone, unfixable, like a ripped-up canvas. Didn’t matter if it had once been a Monet. It had become nothing.

I’d walked the city streets thousands of times. Running to and from work, running to buy a bottle of milk, to meet friends, to catch the bus, and just running, on lazy Sunday mornings. My streets. Torn up as though by a natural disaster. But there was nothing natural about this disaster. Hateful. Senseless. Things lost and buried. Lives changed irrevocably.

How many people had I seen? How many strangers had returned my smile, made me fall ever so slightly in love with them? How many suited businessmen, and stroller-pushing nannies, stick-thin older ladies with fake faces and shopping bags, how many goddamn humans? All caught up in something that could be taken away so easily.

Kids. Adults. People who wore chain store clothes, people who wore Versace. People who ate at McDonalds and people who ate at Gordon Ramsey’s and people who ate the past-sell-by-date food from the Biffa containers behind supermarkets. People who walked. People who hailed cabs. People who cruised by in limousines. Lulu Guinness handbags and carrier bags from Tesco. Oyster cards and platinum Visa cards. Opera singers and buskers. Overdrawn bank accounts and overseas bank accounts.

I knew each building on the wide street without even having to look at them. Overton’s Estate Agents. Ali’s Indian Restaurant and Takeaway. WH Smith. Costa. 24 Hour News and Booze. Jobcentre. Sandwich Stop. Lily May Interior Design. Primark. Tesco Express. HSBC. And the registry office. I stopped, looked up at it.

The building had once been under threat of subsidence but it still stood, tall and proud, though a little shaky, like an elderly rich woman. The grand wooden doors at the front were wide open, almost as if in invitation.

*

A winter wedding. Too excited to wait for summer. Too wary of our families clashing. It happened a mere month after he proposed during a surprise birthday meal. It happened fast. But beautifully.

Nathan was still at university and I was making six pounds an hour pressing bed sheets at Coleridge’s Hotel. Convention told us we could not afford a wedding. Our dreams said we could. I bought a white A-line summer dress on the high-street, ran down to Petticoat Lane market and bought silver sequins, glass beads and yards and yards of white tulle. It took a week of hand-sewing past midnight until the dress looked acceptable.

Arta, my maid of honour, apprenticed in the kitchen at Coleridge’s and insisted that it would be absolutely no problem for her to bake a wedding cake when her superiors had clocked off. She stayed late to decorate it with white fondant, swirls of piped icing and edible glitter. We stole day-old flower displays off housekeepers’ carts the night before the wedding. Nobody knew.

People gathered after the service.

“Where did you get your dress? It’s so beautiful!”

“It’s a one-off,” I breezed. “Bespoke, you know?”

“Like tailor made?” Eyes widened in shock. “It must have cost a fortune!”

“Well. It was worth it.”

My sister’s friend Louise stepped a little closer.

“How much did it cost?”

I acted bashful. “I really couldn’t say.”

The total had been just short of forty seven pounds. Including the veil which comprised of a costume jewellery tiara with a length of tulle attached. Nobody could tell and best of all, the compliments made me feel on top of the world.

“How did you get magnolias in December?”

“This might be the best cake I’ve ever eaten!”

“You guys must have spent all your savings!”

A honeymoon in the park. One afternoon, making out in the snow, bumped up against trees and walls, cold fingers against warm bodies, damp eyelashes and red cheeks and the biggest diamond he could afford which was tiny. An eighth of a carat. He’d wanted to trade it in a few years later, upgrade it but I couldn’t let him. It was too precious.

“So you’re Mrs Lainey Cole, now,” Nathan had said, “That means I’m the boss.”

“I think it’s the other way round, actually.”

“Oh yeah? Last time I checked, I was the one wearing trousers.”

“I’m wearing metaphorical ones.”

His smile lifted.

“Oh, really? Let me check.”

His hand caught the gauzy skirt of my dress and dragged it up, his cold fingers resting on my leg beneath.

“I don’t think you understand the word metaphor,” I breathed. “And you’re freezing.”

“So are you.”

We went home to our one-bed, damp-ridden, basement flat in Clapham and indulged ourselves by turning up the thermostat until the radiators creaked and hissed curses. We ate the remaining wedding cake and drank hot tea and sat on mismatched furniture, me still in my dress and Nathan in his suit.

“We should’ve gone somewhere,” he sighed. “Somewhere romantic and hot. Like Italy, you know?”

I looked past him to the grey snow falling outside the metal-grill covered window.

“I know,” I exhaled. “But I don’t really mind.”

“Are you sure?” he asked, but it seemed as though he couldn’t bring himself to look at me. Instead, he looked down at the threadbare carpet on the floor.

“Yes,” I said. “Italy has like, the mafia. Mafiosi? Is that what they call it? We’d probably have gotten caught up in all that. Wasn’t there some wedding scene in The Godfather where the couple died?” I set my cup down. “Uh, no thank you very much.”

Nathan didn’t answer. He raised his head and looked at me across the small room. I waited for him to speak. He didn’t. He just looked at me.

“What?” I finally asked.

“I just – I don’t think it’d be possible for me to love anyone or anything as hard as I love you right now.”

His words hung there between us, indescribably beautiful. They made me feel a little panicky. I tried to smile.

“Well, that’s a relief. Seems the day was a success. Now you’ll be my gofer forever.”

Nathan didn’t laugh. He didn’t even smile.

“For real, Lainey. You made me. You made us. You made the wedding. I didn’t do a damn thing.”

“Well. You did propose. And it does take two people to get married.”

He stood up and stretched, making the room feel even smaller.

“I guess I do still have to do the whole consummation thing.”

I shook my head.

“Is that what you were getting at?” I teased. “Honestly, Nathan, why’d you always have to take the scenic route?”

His smile was warm and beautiful.

“Because I’m a gentleman. And I like to take my time when the time’s with you.”

He took his time. He helped me out of my dress and hung it over the wardrobe door. He made me come on his fingers. Then his tongue. Then his cock. We lay there a while as the winter night set in, my head on his chest and his arms around me. We talked about things. Children. The future. We had it all planned out, the places we’d go, the things we’d do, the cars we’d drive, right up to how easy we’d be on our grandchildren.

Then we fucked again, me on top for the first time. I would’ve been self-conscious if it hadn’t been for the way he looked at me. His hands were on my waist, his cock throbbing impatiently as I tried to figure out a rhythm. It felt so deep, so intimate and vulnerable.

“Hey, this is easy,” Nate breathed, linking his hands behind his head. “You doing all the work. We should do this all the time.”

I pouted and shook my hair back.

“But I like reducing you to a sweating, grunting animal.”

He laughed so hard that the bed shook. His hands caught my waist again and I circled my hips, getting him deeper still. His hand dropped to my clit and I pushed it away.

“I don’t want to finish so fast.”

“God, you’re already getting demanding,” he laughed but he contented himself with watching as I leaned my hand against his chest and moved up and down.

“Can’t life be just this?” he breathed. “Just us? In here? With the heat up and you so pretty and we don’t have to care about a damn thing?”

As though on cue, a drop of water fell onto the pillow, inches from his head. We looked up at the patch rapidly spreading on the ceiling.

“Fuck,” Nate cursed. “Mr Keogh’s fucking bath. What a fucker. He’s fucking obese, Lainey. He fills up the fucking bath and gets in it and it overflows and he fucking ruins our wedding night.”

And because there was nothing we could do about it, we laughed. He pulled me down and held me close and we laughed so hard that we fell off the fucking bed.

It was, without a doubt, the happiest day of my life.

*

I called him again.

Voicemail.

Hey, you’ve reached Nathan Cole. Kindly leave a message and I will endeavour to get back to you.

A pain throbbed in my left temple. I stopped, closed my eyes tight.

Where was he?

*

Our marriage wasn’t perfect. For the first couple of years it sailed along smooth enough but then we hit something, an iceberg or a storm and things began to crack. I’d got a job as an art teacher at an inner city comprehensive. The pay was decent and with Nathan having made it through his two foundation years at the hospital, we were financially comfortable.

And yet, money doesn’t buy happiness. You don’t really understand that phrase until you’ve lived it.

Nathan struggled with his job. He began drinking. Coming home late. Missing celebrations, birthdays, family get-togethers. He just didn’t seem to get excited about anything anymore.

We didn’t fight. He tried to make it up to me. Flowers. Candlelit dates. Someone else’s idea of repentance and romance. It felt as though something had shifted between us; as though our relationship had somehow slipped into the wrong gear. So long as we got back into the right one, everything would run smooth again and we could keep driving towards that brilliant pink sunset.

But some nights, he didn’t come home. The flat was far too empty without him. I went by his favourite bars, always behind, like a shadow unable to keep up. Soon enough, I was on first-name terms with half the city’s bartenders.

“Nathan? Oh yeah, he was here. ‘Bout half an hour ago.”

“He just left, Lainey. Said he had to get home.”

“No, he was here but he left.”

“Babe, relax. I bet he’s at home waiting for you.”

“Hey, forget him, Lainey. You want a drink? On the house. Why should he have all the fun, huh?”

Nathan had never been particular about watering holes. He went everywhere. It was almost like a game of hide and seek. I never felt angry at him. I couldn’t. Besides, there was something wonderfully lonesome about wandering the city at night. Everything was darker, edgier, scarier. It made my heart race and my palms sweat. It was almost like being behind the scenes of a movie set.

You saw things you didn’t see otherwise. Like drug deals. Like drunk bankers. Like the girl under the Mayor Bridge. Too young to be there. Headlights of kerb-crawlers reflected in her Disney-eyes. A wall of attitude. How do you help someone who doesn’t want to be helped?

Besides, how could I help a stranger when I couldn’t even get through to my husband, the man I shared a bed with?

Was it the stress of his job? The claim-culture which had come to darken even the sterile doors of hospitals? The endless empty complaints and the back and forth with the unions, the lawyers and even the police? He never talked about it but his phone couldn’t last half an hour without an email or call flashing viciously up on the screen.

“Maybe we should move away,” he suggested, one stormy night. “Three guys I was at Uni with have gone to Australia. Should we? Can we? Maybe the US? Maybe even the Middle East?”

I looked up at him from the sofa as he paced restlessly across the room.

“That’s a huge change, Nathan.”

“I know,” He ran his hands through his hair. “It’s just – endless, Lainey. This isn’t what I wanted. This world isn’t so pretty anymore. It’s like, all these dreams were just dreams. Nothing’s even close to perfect.”

I tried to think of something to say. He looked at me, a little regretful.

“I’m sorry, baby. I just – I can’t bear it. So much greed and politics and fucking everywhere is a mess!”

His hand caught the edge of a photo frame and it clattered to the floor, the glass breaking. He stooped to pick up the pieces, swearing under his breath.

“It’ll pass,” I said. “I swear it will. In a few years you’ll look back at this time and it’ll be nothing.”

“But I’m not even doing what I wanted,” He abandoned the broken glass and looked at me. “I wanted to help people. And there are kids dying in wars and I’m talking to some hypochondriac with an imaginary headache? It’s just – it’s a joke!”

“Nate, sometimes you just -”

“No. No. I mean, what the fuck, Lainey? I spent five years at fucking university for this?” He stared at me, searching for answers I didn’t have. “For red tape and people who want to eat or smoke or drink themselves to death? And I’m becoming one of them! It’s sick, okay? It’s fucking sick!”

I had no words, no reassurances. I looked at him desperately. He was so lost, hurting so much and I couldn’t even think of anything to say.

*

He seemed to struggle to settle down. To find himself. To find a life where he felt he belonged. The drinking stopped. The protests started. A march against tuition fees. A march against income tax increases. A non-specific anti-government march.

Sometimes the demonstrations turned violent but he never got arrested. He’d be out picketing every weekend. Police corruption. NHS cuts. Refugee quotas. Sometimes I went with him. There was warmth in the crowds, a sense of collective, exciting rebellion. A shared dream sitting just out of sight.

But Nathan couldn’t sit still. He wanted to grab that dream. For him, things moved too slowly. The protests seemed pointless; they made little impact on government policy and the people in his circles weren’t as passionate as him.

He started drinking again. Stopped. Protested furiously against fracking. Drinking. Protesting. Drinking. It went on for a few years.

Then he joined a team of emergency relief medics. They went abroad for months at a time. Palestine, Sierra Leone, Syria.

“It’s fine,” he assured me, as I held back tears at Heathrow. “I’ll be back. This is just something I have to do. You get it, don’t you?”

I did get it. But I didn’t like it. But then I felt selfish too. We’d moved up in the world, to a one-bed first-floor apartment in Fitzrovia. No damp. Good insulation. Everything felt a little cleaner, a little more comfortable. But the place echoed without him. Still, it’d be worth it, right? If it made him feel better about himself. If it stopped the drinking. If he could get a realistic perspective on life.

But he came back after one six-month stretch worse than ever.

“You just don’t get it, Lainey! This is like a different world! There’s nothing there. Everything’s been taken, everyone’s dying or terrified of dying, there’s just funeral after funeral and dust and blood and nobody gives a shit. They dress up in their suits at the fucking G20 and play fucking golf and all the while, these beautiful, innocent kids are getting their legs blown off!”

I looked at him. His extended stay in the Middle East had left him nut-brown. He looked more attractive than ever but for his deep-set frown.

“But you helped them, didn’t you?” I soothed. “At least some of them? Surely there’s hope?”

“Hope?” His laugh had a bitter edge I’d never heard before. “These people have nowhere to go. Their homes are blown up. No schools. No other country lets them in. Why are there even countries? Why can’t we just be one world?”

“I – I don’t know, Nate,” I touched his arm. “It’s just the way it is.”

He pulled away like he couldn’t bear the contact.

“Well, I can’t fucking stand the way it is.”

“Nate, please.”

“No, I mean it, Lainey.” He turned to me. “Aren’t we good people? Aren’t most people good people? How can this be happening? I feel guilty coming back here. To all these clean streets and red buses and bullshit.”

He shook his head, eyes narrowed as he glared out the window.

“I hate this city,” he said, very quietly. “Everything it thinks it is. Everything it represents. All these people. Blind. It’s like they’re not even human.”

I cleared my throat, trying not to cry.

“So why did you come back?”

He looked at me. He was sweating.

“Don’t ask me that.”

I turned away, looked at our living room, sofas and the glass coffee table and books lined up on the period mantelpiece. I suddenly felt ashamed of it all.

He caught my hand and pulled me to him.

“I’m sorry. I never meant to turn out this way. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

I swallowed hard. “Nate - ”

“I love you,” he promised. “I always will.”

We fucked that night. Seven days before the city came crashing down. We went into the bedroom he hadn’t seen for six months and he took off my dress and kissed me and apologised and forgot the world for a couple of hours and became my world.

“You’re so incredibly beautiful,” he said.

I didn’t say it back because I couldn’t bring myself to speak. I’d missed him so hard and the man that had come back was still my husband, he was still Nathan Cole and I was relieved but so desperate. I wanted him to rewind to our wedding night, to be that optimistic, relaxed guy on top of the world. He fucked the same, at least. His body was stronger than ever as though sunlight had seeped in and nourished it. He had scars I hadn’t seen before, didn’t want to ask about.

I kissed a path down his broad chest, further down until he tensed as my mouth found his hard cock. My pointed tongue traced along the length before I took him between my lips. His hands went into my hair. I looked up at him and he looked right back at me, his gaze patient and steady, like it had been the very first time.

“I do love you,” he said. “More than I can even say.”

I’d never doubted it but he loved other things too. And he loved them even more. Freedom. Ideals. Peace. He wanted impossible things.

He grew harder in my mouth, his fingers tight in my hair. I never even thought of sex when he was gone. It was as though I could only be turned on by him. I sucked harder, trying not to think and his hips pushed forward, a groan in his throat. He made me take it further, his hands guiding my movements, his eyes silently coaxing me on. I felt the inevitable swell, saw the snarl cross his face. He pulled out fast.

I didn’t move. Pulling me up his body, he kissed me hard, his fingers pushing between my legs and curling inside me. The heel of his hand ground against my snatch, hard and inescapable. My teeth caught on his lip and he groaned out a laugh.

“I missed this,” he said, against my mouth. “More than anything.”

I knew he was looking at me, waiting for my eyes to meet his but I couldn’t look at him.

“Baby, say something,” he urged. “Give me something, huh?”

“I just – I missed you so much.”

I pressed my face into the pillow so he wouldn’t see the tears. He rolled over to move on top and kissed my neck. My collarbone. My tit. His teeth caught the nipple and tugged until I squirmed. His weight was on my legs, holding them apart while his fingers pushed into me again.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I just screw you around endlessly. Why don’t you just leave me, huh? Forget me? I’d understand.”

I looked at him.

“Wouldn’t you be hurt?”

“I hurt you, don’t I?”

“No,” I lied. “Not really. You do what you need. You have a life bigger than me.”

He let out a breath. His thumb pressed against my clit. Didn’t move. Just pressed there hard enough to make me shiver.

“God, Nate.”

His thumb moved in slow circles, his mouth dry and warm against my skin. His lips moved further down, his legs still holding mine apart. His body had changed so much over the years. It was better than ever now, the sheer masculinity of it; all broad back and rippling muscles. Tanned skin. I wanted to hold onto him and never let go; wanted to lock the front door and hide the key and keep him with me forever.

His weight shifted off me, and his hands caught my legs, holding them wide as he trailed his tongue slowly over my clit. It was barely a touch but it felt almost unbearable. I tried to pull away. He swept his tongue down harder, curling it all the way down to my asshole.

“Nate!”

He held tighter, moved his tongue faster before he caught my clit against his teeth. It was too much. I came against his mouth, and even then he didn’t let go of me. My legs ached to close but he didn’t let them move. His tongue didn’t stop sweeping back and forth even as I writhed, hands fisted in the sweat soaked sheets.

“For God’s sake, Nate!”

I came again and he pushed his fingers inside me, making me clench around them and prolonging the sweet over-intensity. He moved back on top of me, fingers still working my snatch and he kissed me hard. Breathless. Desperate. I felt dangerously close to him, like I might just become a part of him. His tongue pushed deep into my mouth and I felt him shift, his cock pushing against my snatch, replacing his fingers and slowly gliding inside.

He kissed my cheek, my ear, my shoulder, catching his breath before his lips enveloped mine again. His cock stretched me sublimely, filling me to the edge of pain, the pressure intense enough to make my nails dig into his broad shoulders. He drew back, almost pulling out completely before slamming in hard. The headboard thumped against the wall. I always forgot how it felt. So deep. So possessive.

His hand curled around one of my legs, holding it behind the knee and pulling it up so he could get deeper. I’d never felt quite so open. It hurt in the best way. With each jarring thrust, he’d pause and grind against me, so wet and intimate. It took my breath away.

“You’re fucking perfection,” he hissed.

We fucked that way for a while, him holding me open, his hand finding my clit again and rubbing it until another orgasm spilled out of me. He waited until I’d finished, the head of his cock just inside my snatch, his eyes drinking in the way I squirmed as he held my legs apart. Then he kissed me, even as I gasped, and pushed his cock deep inside me again.

His hand pressed against me again and the breath whooshed out of me.

“Nate, it’s too much, please, you’re crazy!”

His finger moved languorously, toying with my over-sensitive clit.

“C’mon, Lainey,” he coaxed. “It’s been so long since we’ve been like this.”

His cock throbbed ominously inside me. His finger moved faster. My legs trembled.

“I can’t,” I turned my head to the side. “Don’t make me, don’t make me.”

He was breathing hard, his cock moving fast and slick.

“Give it to me,” he growled. “Just one, huh?”

His fingertip pressed against my clit. Everything throbbed. I felt as though I might overheat.

“Oh, god, don’t make me!”

“I want you to come harder than you’ve ever come before. For me.” He caught my chin, made me look at him. I could have drowned in his eyes. “Okay?”

His finger moved in tight circles, his brow furrowed in concentration. I felt it build, impossible and yet essential. Nothing else mattered. It was just me and him. Locked so tight together, his cock inside me, his fingers working me, his mouth stealing my breath. I came, my hand around his wrist, still trying to pull his fingers away. Nothing had ever felt so physical. My eyes closed, hips lifting and pushing against him as he thrust into me. It tipped him over the edge.

“Fuck!”

His long groan was muffled somewhere in my shoulder. It felt as though we were just bodies. Working each other. Twisting and sweating and jerking. We gasped shamelessly, almost panting and lay there, falling back into life. I touched his back, felt the sweat there. He shifted and moved to lie beside me.

“Don’t leave again,” I breathed. “Please.”

He sat up and looked down at me. Looked at the white ceiling, then looked at the soft carpet.

“I won’t.”

His phone rang on the floor, still in the pocket of his jeans. I reached down to scrabble around for it. There was no name on the glowing screen, just a letter ‘A’.

“Who’s that?” I asked, handing it to him.

He didn’t reply. He went out the room to answer the call and shut the door firmly behind himself.

*

Everyone from our office was huddled together at Reception on the fourth floor, consoling one another and frantically calling loved ones. We drank tea. Hot, strong tea. A never-ending supply. The television played on the wall behind the reception desk, the screen pouring out news, amateur footage and expert opinions.

Reports said that there must have been dozens of suicide bombers. An organised attack. A tight-knit terrorist network. Externally orchestrated and horrendously executed. People made speeches. Celebrities cried. Politicians cried. There were emergency government meetings. World leaders expressed their condolences. #CommunicateNotHate. And the flipside. People to blame. Agendas and division.

It struck me that similar tragedies were almost routine for some countries. But other people are too far away to care about. Images on television screens. Five minute news bulletins. It only really hurts when you’re in the middle of it, when it’s your home, your friends, your heart that’s breaking. And maybe it’s selfish. But until you’re face to face with a disaster, you don’t really see or lose sleep over it.

*

I’d seen him just twelve hours ago.

“Baby, I’m going now,” He came into the living room, all dressed for work.

“Yeah,” I nodded, not looking up from my book. “Okay.”

His shadow fell over my page.

“Whatcha reading?”

I held up the cover to show him East of Eden.

“We were dead centre Eden,” he said, and for a second, I saw the teenage version of him, lanky and laughing somewhere beyond the frown.

“Still are,” I murmured. “Aren’t we?”

He didn’t reply to that.

“I’m sorry.”

I put the book down and sighed.

“For what, Nate? Being human?”

He looked at me hard.

“Don’t make excuses for me, Lainey.”

“I can if I want to.”

“Stop it. You keep talking like that and I can’t leave.” His phone rang but he didn’t answer it.

“Who’s that?” I teased. “The mysterious ‘A’? Your secret girlfriend?”

“You’re the only one,” he said. “You know that, right?”

I stood up and hugged him. He didn’t hug me back and when I tried to kiss him, he gently averted his head.

“Don’t, baby. You’re killing me.”

“Fine,” I sighed, letting go of him. “Go to work. What time do you want breakfast? I might be gone but there’s cereal.”

He had his hand on the door and he didn’t look back.

“Please. Don’t worry about it.”

*

He’d been everything I ever believed in. He felt like a part of me, connected. But did I ever even know him at all? You think you know people, what they’re like. Sometimes you wish you could read their minds, know what the hell’s going on inside. But it’s impossible. There’s no way in.

The news came out fast, snowballing, theories coming and going. By midday, pictures of half the alleged bombers were plastered over Sky News. Men. Women. It struck me how human they were. How they must have all had some form of family, some history. They’d been children once. Some of them were ugly. Some were beautiful. How well do you ever really know anyone?

I thought of Nathan again. Probably sleeping off the night shift, I decided. But something irked me. His demeanour the previous night. His anger the week before.

I hate this city. Everything it thinks it is. Everything it represents. All these people. Blind. It’s like they’re not even human.

The people on the screen were random. A teacher. A preacher. An ex-soldier. Brought together by some kind of rage. But still. Nathan wasn’t one of them. He was a doctor, for God’s sake.

Of course I was being ridiculous. I always imagined the worst. I called him again.

Hey, you’ve reached Nathan Cole. Kindly leave a message and I will endeavour to get back to you.

Sweat made my shirt to stick to my back. I walked hazily out of the disoriented office block. I felt sick. Something unbearable was running around me and I couldn’t shake it off. I had to get rid of the ridiculous idea. I had to disprove my own insecure paranoia.

God! I turned, ran towards the tube station then remembered the service wasn’t running. Fuck. I’d called him so many times that the battery on my phone had died. Every part of me felt sick with fear. Where would he be? At home. Where else?

Buildings, people, double yellow lines. Sweat and dust. I ran through street after street, colliding with strangers, tripping over potholes, my legs aching and my heart pounding. It hurt to breathe. Every long breath felt like it’d choke me. I finally got to our road, to our block, fumbled for my key, staggered up the staircase and burst into our flat.

“Nate? Nate! You here?”

No answer. I leaned against the front door, sweating. I sucked in a long breath, trying to think. Where would he be? A bar, maybe? At lunch? Had he even been working that night? Everything felt cold and shaky. I went into the living room, half-hoping he might be in there watching the television. Or in the kitchen, getting a cup of Nescafe. Or in the bathroom, taking a shower.

Nothing.

Silence.

The bedroom door was closed. I stopped in front of it. Hadn’t I left it open? I never closed it. Hope rose warily inside me. I turned the handle, pushed open the door. My eyes were closed. Please be here. Please be here you crazy beautiful man. I opened my eyes and the room came into focus. He wasn’t there. He simply was not there.

Nothing. The bed looked as immaculate as I’d left it. I pulled back the sheets as though he could have somehow become a flattened version of himself and slipped between them. I looked in the wardrobe like he might be hiding. Nothing. I lay on the bed, kidding myself that he’d walk through the door any second. He didn’t. If I’d turned on the news, his face would’ve looked out at me, the shot from his NHS ID card amongst the teacher and the preacher.

I lay on our bed, staring at the cracks in the ceiling until the police knocked hard on the door.

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